Scents of Spring – two fabulous boys and a catty treasure

scent sciences - flowers - blogHere in Great Britain, the seasons are certainly turning, and in the southern parts of our Isles, it would seem that the weather is positively balmy and spring-like. Here in the north, our days are brightened by early flowers, as we await the arrival of warmer weather! In this blog post, I would like to talk about the scents of three spring flowers – what they meant to our ancestors and their important role in contemporary perfumery. We will explore two ‘narcotic’ floral scents – narcissus and hyacinth – whose names are immortalised in Greek mythology. To the ancient Greeks, both symbolised the cycle of life, death and rebirth, or transition and transformation. Our third spring flower is that of the blackcurrant, and in this blog we will appreciate the significance of this trio in the classic fragrance Chamade, composed by Jean Paul Guerlain and launched in 1969.

HyacinthusWe shall begin by looking at the myth of Hyacinthus – a beautiful youth, and lover of Apollo; Zephyrus, god of the West Wind was also a rival for his affections. Apollo taught Hyacinthus many skills such as archery, music, and divination, and throwing the discus. Apollo threw the discus and, trying to impress, Hyacinthus ran to catch it; however the jealous Zephyrus blew the discus off course, and it hit and killed him. Distraught, Apollo transformed his blood into the hyacinth flower, rather than have him descend to Hades. Sometimes it is said that the letters ‘ai, ai’ were traced on the flower, so that Apollo’s cries of grief would always be heard. Some versions of the myth suggest that the iris was the flower that represented his transformation; while other versions suggest that Hyacinthus was taken to the Elysian Fields by the goddesses Aphrodite, Artemis and Athena. His tomb was at the foot of Apollo’s statue at Amylcae, south west of Sparta, and in the Mycenaean era, a cult grew around him. Every summer, in Sparta, the three day festival of Hyacinthia was held; the first day was spent mourning his death, but the following two days celebrated his rebirth.

The hyacinth emerges from a round bulb; it has bright green lance shaped leaves, and spikes of very fragrant, bell-shaped flowers. Linnaeus the taxonomist and botanist called the hyacinth the flower of grief and mourning. However, as the related, but largely unscented, wild bluebell of the British Isles did not appear to have Apollo’s cries of grief written on it, the early botanists named it Hyacinthus non-scripta (Grieve 1992). Despite the fact that it does not have a scent, when in full flower, bluebell woods are very special places to be; they can impart the sense of being at the fringe of another world, and have inspired many faery tales and even fragrances. The hyacinth that is grown for its scented oil is Hyacinthus orientalis.This is sometimes called jacinthe oil, and is cultivated commercially in both Holland and France. The absolute is a dark greenish liquid that has a very powerful, sharp, green, leaf like odour, only pleasant on dilution, and only resembling hyacinth on extreme dilution (Jouhar 1991). At the time of writing, hyacinth absolute is very scarce; however synthetic hyacinth is easily obtained. There is a marked difference in the Continue reading

Signs, Portents and Scented Transitions

Imbolc Festival

Anyone who has read my posts will probably have realised that my love of scent is inextricably linked with the natural world, landscapes and seasons. I also find that we can glean valuable glimpses about how our early ancestors related to their world through the world of myths, legends and folklore. But also, because natural scents are unchanging, they are our only remaining tangible link with our predecessors. This is the time of year when we begin to emerge from winter; it is a time of seasonal transition, and so a time of observation. The ancient Celts and Gaels – like so many other cultures – would look for signs and portents.

In Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man, the last throes of winter and the first signs of spring were marked by the festival of Imbolc, which coincided with the emergence of snowdrops. This festival, and others such as the Welsh Gŵil Fair y Canhwyllau, celebrated the beginning of spring – held on the 1st February, falling exactly between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Apart from the snowdrop, Imbolc was also very much associated with Continue reading

Osmanthus – the Scent of an Oriental Autumn

Image

In Scotland, we have just enjoyed an uncharacteristically glorious summer, full of beautiful scents. Autumn can be wonderful too, but then it is more the rich pallete of colours that we appreciate – our visual sense tends to dominate the season. Here, if we are asked to identify the scents of autumn, we might think of fallen leaves, damp earth, pumpkins and gourds, bonfires, wood smoke, maybe coniferous forests. However, there is one beautiful scented flower that, in China and Japan, is very much associated with autumn, and that is osmanthus.

Osmanthus fragrans is a woody, evergreen flowering shrub. In China it is known as kweiha, and the scent of the blossoms is loved and renowned; and indeed has been described as the quintessential scent of China.  It has been cultivated for hundreds of years, and is often found at Buddhist temples, where it is planted in groves. Osmanthus is very much considered to be Continue reading

The ancestry, symbolism and scent of the rose

the delicate rose

Staying loosely with a seasonal scent theme, I had been planning to blog about the fragrances of summer flowers, but a strange string of coincidences over the last couple of days has prompted me to focus on just one – the rose – and all because of my family ancestry! Here is how it came about… Correspondence with a new colleague in the aromatherapy world mentioned, by chance, a family connection with geology at the University of Edinburgh. I too have a connection there – my great great grandfather (on my paternal grandfather’s side) was Alexander Rose, who was the ‘founding father’ of the Edinburgh Geological Society. I was fortunate enough to have inherited an old book about him and his grandson Robert Traill Rose (an artist) from my father, who had done some research of his own about this side of the family. I have just spent a rather emotional time pondering genealogy, re-reading this old book – and thinking about its author, Mary Stoddart Tweedie Rose, also an artist and the wife of Robert. I am left wondering if many of my own passions and interests are, in some way, her legacy… Anyway, with this rather tenuous link, let’s explore another aspect of the ‘Roses’, not my ancestry, but their ancestry, symbolism and scent.

Roses have captivated mankind for thousands of years. A quick look reveals just how Continue reading

May Day

may-pole-daisies-600kbContinuing with the theme of scents in the natural world, it feels right that this should be linked, where possible, with natural seasons and cycles. In our contemporary world, it might seem that our day-to-day lives are less connected with these natural cycles than they were in days gone by, when seasonal celebrations marked the year. May Day, the 1st of May, is just one example. It is a celebration of the coming of summer, and falls exactly six months on from Samhain, now marked as Continue reading

Meadows and Hedgerows

imagesGoing back to my first blog, we explored ‘peak experiences’ in the natural world; the times when any boundaries between you, the observer, and the environment, or what you are observing, become blurred or disappear altogether, and a sense of wellbeing is experienced. Since then, we have looked at some of the scents of the natural world – the forests and woods, and the seashore. This time we will consider the beautiful fragrances of the hayfields, pastures and hedgerows. These scents are often described as ‘agrestic’, meaning that they are reminiscent of the countryside.

One of the most popular and pleasing fragrances is Continue reading

Learning How to Smell Better in Our Odiferous World – Part 1

550px-Improve-Your-Sense-of-Smell-Step-1Many people have asked how they can learn to “smell” more proficiently.  While each of us is born with the techniques of smelling (smelling through the nose and smelling through the back of the throat – the latter being lumped together with the sense of  taste – actually only the sensations of salty, sweet, bitter, sour, umami (savory)) – we seem to think that improving our ability to smell requires something magical and probably well beyond our “normal” capabilities.  That is not so.  Smelling better – improving our ability to be more discriminating and more capable of identifying odor types as well as specific odors – is mostly a function of experience.  Practice and more practice is the key to learning how to become better and better at it.
Start with things that are fun and that are easier to Continue reading

On the Beach – Part 2

ambergrisIn my last blog post, we explored the types of smells associated with the seashore. However, there is one other important aromatic found, very occasionally, on the beach – ambergris. The name translates as ‘grey amber’ which gives a clue to its appearance. Ambergris can be found washed up on the shores of New Zealand, Australia and the Indian Ocean, and it has long held an important place in perfumery, as a medicine, aphrodisiac and incense. Originally it was thought to be bird excrement, or congealed gum or bitumen, or even a Continue reading

Jasmine as strong as valiums?

96I was doing some research on the scent of jasmine and I came upon some very interesting information which may amuse you. A laboratory test on mice has found Continue reading

Old Books and their Addictive Smell

smelly_bookHave you ever found yourself in an old-fashion book store, hiding in the corner and looking like a creep who’s trying to do something weird with some book? Well, I have. But honestly, I was not trying to look possessed or anything – I was just Continue reading